Witch Hunt at the Strand
Directed by David Cheoros
Written by Darrin Hagen
Starring Jesse Gervais, Matthew Hulshof, Doug Mertz, and Davina Stewart
Now until December 4th, 2016
Backstage Theatre (10330 84 Avenue)
Tickets: $24.50 – Student (available here)
When you think about what it means to be Canadian, hockey, maple syrup, being overly apologetic, and Tim Hortons probably come to mind. Maybe you would associate ideals like multiculturalism or marriage equality with being Canadian as well. Unfortunately, such reputations often drown out the darker aspects of Canada’s past, something that Darrin Hagen’s Witch Hunt at the Strand solemnly reminds us of.
In Witch Hunt at the Strand, Hagen — a playwright, actor, queer activist, and historian — writes about a time where Edmonton was “pre-equality, pre-oil money, pro-eugenics, (and had) an obsession with ‘our boys’ going to fight the Nazis.” The play, which is set in 1942, tells the true story of 10 men living in Edmonton who were charged unjustly with gross indecency. Convicted with informal testimony and seized private letters, all investigated were deemed to be within the same social circle, and involved with The Strand Theatre. This dark chapter of our city’s history is now being brought to life via Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, and runs from now until December 4 at the Backstage Theatre.
Originating as a fringe play, Witch Hunt at the Strand’s four person cast, and simple set created the perfect tone for this show. The story of Harvey Kagna (Doug Mertz) and James Richardson (Jesse Gervais) was told in front of a simple projection of historical newspaper articles, with a mixture of somber reality and Edmontonian humour that kept the audience’s attention fixed. The set’s different levels created scenes without elaborate staging, and the use of actual letters written to James Richardson from his lover in the Air Force gave the show enthralling dynamics between times and places. Though the actors doubled up on characters throughout the show, lighting, sound changes, as well as body language made the differences clear — the cast and crew did a beautiful job giving life to Edmonton’s old haunts.
The play is full of powerful lines about love, secrets and shame, but one of the most poignant is about identity. During one of the final scenes, Kagna talks about being forced by his family to marry a woman in Montreal after he serves his sentenced three years of hard labour, for one count of gross indecency. When one of the managers at the Strand asks about being able to live that lie he replies, “This is just a different one.”
Three years of hard labour — the sentences of Richardson and Kagna — may seem mild in a time where chemical castration and electroshock therapy were still in practice, but still the effects of the “witch hunt” were widespread. Both the opera and theatre companies of the Strand went under. The men’s families suffered intense judgement, especially due to the mass hysteria caused by the over 48 articles written in the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Bulletin about the investigations. When released, Kagna moved to Montreal to marry, and Richardson wasn’t heard from by the theatre community after his sentence. And it wasn’t just the 10 men referenced in the play who were affected; 37 similar charges were laid between April 1942 and March 1943.
Witch Hunt at the Strand is a moving, sobering, and important tale to tell — investigations like the one portrayed happened all over the country, but much of the documentation has been destroyed. The education provided by Hagen and this production is an example of the progress we’ve made as a community.
Just as David Cheoros states in his director’s note, “A community is fragile. A community can be brutalised. And it can be broken. Only through political will, collective action and personal commitment can we keep that from happening.”